The Best Insulated Jacket for Men Review
What is the best synthetic insulated jacket? To find out, we took nine of the highest performing synthetic insulated jackets and compared and contrasted them after extensive side-by-side testing. We evaluated jackets with various levels of thickness, as well as models designed for maximum breathability. We wore them under and over shells while hiking, climbing, and skiing and as stand-alone outer layers around town and in the backcountry. Each product has been rated in six metrics: warmth, weight and compressibility, comfort, weather resistance, breathability, and style.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
For the fourth year in a row, the Rab Xenon X Hoodie easily takes home our Editors' Choice award. What's not to like about this product? It has everything you need and not an ounce more. It is quite light and very warm; highly wind and water resistant, this jacket is a perfect choice for folks that tend to forgo a truly waterproof shell layer when headed out into the wilderness or up multi-pitch climbs. Despite its weight and compressibility, we found the Xenon X to be a substantial barrier between us and the elements. We were able to easily throw this award winner on top of all our other layers. Our favorite features include a micro-fleece-lined collar and ergonomic zipper pulls. The Xenon X stuffs neatly and quickly into its chest pocket and we love it as a lightweight outer layer for hiking, backpacking, climbing, and skiing.
Very warm for its weight
Stuffs into pocket
Wind and water resistant
For the second year in a row Outdoor Research Cathode Hooded Jacket picks up our Best Buy Award. Delivering excellent performance at the low price of $200, this highly mobile jacket is also the third lightest jacket we tested, and it features a hybrid combination of a weather resistant torso and breathable underarm panels. Despite its affordability, the Cathode still has great features like glove pockets and an excellent hood cinch design. While our other award winners have more focused performance, the Cathode does everything reasonably well. If your priority is "best bang for your buck," then our Best Buy winner is a great choice.
Light and stows small in pocket
Good weather resistance paired with breathable core and arm panels
Needs to be paired with a light shell for windy conditions
The Patagonia Nano Air Hoody - Mens is designed for high octane endeavors like backcountry skiing, mid-winter running, and steep uphill approaches, which is why it won our Top Pick for Breathability. It keeps you warm, but is much more capable of remaining comfortable over an extended range of temperatures and activity levels. The soft, stretchy fabrics inside and out feel great, provide excellent mobility, and wick sweat to the outside. No more stopping to delayer or layer up, just keep charging.
Offers little wind resistance
This is an outermost layer that is designed for hunkering down, whether you're at a cold belay out ice climbing or making camp in the winter. The Patagonia DAS Parka, or "Dead Air Space" parka, has a PU coated outer fabric for water resistance, lots of insulation layered just where it's needed, and a stiffened brim on the hood. Two internal mesh pockets hold water bottles to keep them from freezing, or your damp gloves to dry them next to warm torso, or to warm up your climbing shoes. An impenetrable layer against the wind and vulnerable to only the most torrential of rain storms, the DAS Parka takes home our Top Pick Award for Warmth for a second year in a row.
Warmest contender tested
Designed for cold weather climbing
Great weather resistance
Bulky and heavy
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Analysis and Test Results
An insulated jacket is an essential layer for cool and cold weather. This style of jacket has traditionally been intended as either a middle layer under a shell or as an outer layer in cool weather. However, functionality is always evolving and our selection now includes new breathable insulation technologies. Such technologies allow for better warmth and sweat management for high energy, cold weather adventures. We also tested several products that focus on warmth and weather resistance rather than breathability, including a few heavier models designed as outer layers for really cold temps. All of the products we tested in this review are insulated with various types of synthetic insulation. These modern polyester alternatives to goose down do a much better job of retaining their loft and warmth when damp or wet.
Despite its benefits when wet, synthetic insulation is less warm for its weight than goose down. You'll find reviews of state-of-the-art down insulating layers in our Men's Down Jacket Review and Men's Winter Jacket Review. The pieces in the down jacket category are similar in warmth to the products tested in this review, though they are generally a little lighter and more compressible. The winter jackets are burly, down-insulated parkas ideal for hunkering down in the coldest weather.
Types of Synthetic Insulated Jackets
In this review, we tested a diverse group of products with a wide range of best applications. Along the warmth continuum, there are thin pieces built with 40 g/m2 insulating fibers and models with upwards of 200 g/m2 insulation in the torso area. In addition, some of the designs focus on breathability and comfort for high energy use, while others focus on maximizing warmth and weather resistance. In this section, we detail the different types of jackets on the market by lumping them in three loose groups.
Visit our individual reviews where we compare each model closely with the most similar pieces.
Lightweight with High Breathability
First, we have two lightly insulated jackets that have insulation specifically engineered for breathability and design features geared toward high energy efforts in the cold. The Nano-Air Hoody uses a proprietary breathable insulation developed by Patagonia. The Outdoor Research Uberlayer is built with moisture-wicking Polartec Alpha. These types of insulation are engineered to increase your comfort range during heavy exertion by improving air flow, wicking away moisture, and stretching more than traditional synthetics.
The trade-off is less wind resistance and less warmth. The Nano Air is the most breathable and comfortable model we tested, but the warmer and heavier Uberlayer is close behind. The Nano Air goes for light and simple design, and the Uberlayer offers some great features like glove warmer pockets and a hood cinch. Both are able to handle high energy activity by allowing warm, moist air to escape.
Products in this category include:
Lightweight with Hybrid Construction
Lightweight jackets that use traditional synthetic insulation and shell fabrics don't usually breathe well, but these hybrids add thin, stretchy, and breathable fabric in key areas. All the jackets in this category have a combination of features that focus on wind resistance in some areas, yet promote breathability in others. The Outdoor Research Cathode and the Arc'teryx Atom LT both incorporate highly breathable softshell panels in key areas under the arms, and insulated, wind resistant construction on the chest and back. We find this style of construction very comfortable and versatile for use in various activities. The low bulk under the arms is also quite comfortable and significantly increases mobility. When worn as an outer layer, these jackets can dump heat and moisture from the breathable panels, while still protecting your core from cold wind. The Arc'teryx Atom SL, the lightest model we reviewed, takes the hybrid design up a step, featuring a lightly insulated torso, softshell side panels, and a soft mesh lining in the arms.
Products in this category include:
Traditional Style Insulated Jackets
As we continue along the jacket continuum, we find lightly to heavily insulated models that are less capable of shedding heat and sweat (less breathable), and instead focus on protecting you from wind and a little bit of rain or snow. These jackets use wind resistant ripstop nylon for the entire shell and some incorporate near continuous liners or shell fabric to block the wind. The Rab Xenon X uses a near continuous outer shell fabric designed to block wind and resist water and is warmer than similarly light models – it is our hands-down favorite for a light weight insulated jacket used as an outer layer.
The Patagonia Nano Puff Hoody balances breathability and wind resistance well. It does have a sewn-through exterior fabric, but also a continuous inner liner that serves to block air flow from the outside and promote the wicking away of sweat. The North Face ThermoBall Hoody also falls into this category - both use quilted construction sewn through the inner liner. Their stitching is sewn completely through the shell and liner fabric, which promotes air flow when the wind blows and creates thousands of small holes for warm air to move through when worn under a shell.
Finally, we have the mighty, tried and true Patagonia DAS Parka. By far the heaviest contender in our review, the DAS Parka employs a windproof polyurethane coated shell with an extremely effective DWR finish. With 120g/m2 of Primaloft silver Hi-loft reinforced with an additional 60g/m2 in the torso, the DAS Parka achieves the same warmth as a down parka. It is designed to be worn as the ultimate outer layer. It's an incredible belay parka for cold weather climbing on ice or rock and our Top Pick for Warmth two years in a row.
Products in this category include:
Criteria For Evaluation
Check out the following Overall Performance chart to see how each jacket ranked overall.
First and foremost, the jacket you choose, combined with your other upper layers, needs to keep you warm in the weather you plan to use it in. We've weighted this metric most heavily: 25% of each model's overall score. As we detailed above, down is warmer for the weight than synthetic insulation, however, the scores we awarded to the jackets in this review only compare their warmth relative to each other. The models in this review span thicker pieces that are intended as an outermost layer in truly cold weather, highly breathable models for continuous aerobic activity, and thinner pieces intended to be used as mid-layers. These thinner jackets also make excellent outer layers for around-town wear in the cooler months.
One product we tested used significantly more insulation than the rest of the field. The Patagonia DAS Parka - our Top Pick for Warmth - is the warmest model we tested, as well as the heaviest and least compressible. It is a perfect belay jacket for ice routes and winter climbing. It also has several nice climbing-oriented features, including large interior mesh pockets and a beefy two-way zipper that also opens from the bottom up. Next on the warmth continuum is our Editors' Choice Award Winner, the Rab Xenon X. With 60g/m2 PrimaLoft Gold insulation, the Xenon X is nearly half the weight of the DAS Parka. We feel they are comparable because of their similar construction styles, and for the weight, the Xenon X is phenomenally warm. This model is also a great outer layer with its continuous windproof Pertex shell and highly water resistant DWR finish. While not as warm as the DAS Parka, we found the Xenon to be an essential piece for alpine rock climbing.
Comparing the warmth of the lightly insulated models is challenging. Some are designed in whole or part to allow wind to blow through for breathability, while others are very wind resistant. To pick a point of comparison, we rated their warmth as an outer layer when worn over warm baselayers with a light breeze blowing. When you visit our individual reviews, we compare each model's warmth directly to the most similar products.
Among the lighter weight models we tested, the Patagonia Nano Puff Hoody and Arc'teryx Atom LT stand out for the warmth they provide, though the Nano Puff is less wind resistant due to it's quilted construction. The lightest jackets in the review, the Outdoor Research Cathode Hooded Jacket and Arc'teryx Atom SL, were also the least warm. Super light and highly compressible, these jackets function well as exceptional mid-layers.
Weight & Compressibility
An insulated jacket is one of those pieces that we find ourselves taking everywhere, and here at OutdoorGearLab, light is usually right. All else being near equal, we'll choose the lighter and more compressible model almost every time. Our scores for weight and compressiblity contribute 20% to overall scores. The lightest, most compressible jacket we tested is the Arc'teryx Atom SL. It uses 40g/m2 of Arc'teryx's Coreloft insulation exclusively in the torso. The Rab Xenon X, Outdoor Research Cathode Hooded Jacket, and Arc'teryx Atom LT are the next lightest models we tested. All have outstanding warmth-to-weight ratios when used as a mid-layer, and the Atom LT and the Cathode are breathable due to their hybrid construction. That said, if you prioritize warmth for weight, it's hard to beat the Editors' Choice Xenon X. It is just barely heavier than the Cathode, much more wind resistant, and with additional comfort features.
We also greatly appreciate a jacket that stows away in one of its pockets. This feature makes just-in-case storage in a backpack easy and serves to keep the outer fabric clean and protect its DWR treatment from wear. Most of the models we tested stuff into a pocket or come with a stuff sack. The Xenon X, Cathode, and Nano Puff Hoody are our favorite stuffable pieces; all are compact, have a clip loop, and regularly traveled on our testers' harnesses when climbing.
On the other end of the spectrum, the big, heavily insulated Patagonia DAS doesn't compress well. This product is designed for warmth and uses a type of PrimaLoft insulation known for its loft rather than its compressibility. Expect the DAS to take up a lot of space in your pack, about as much as a small sleeping bag.
Five of the competitors are pictured stuffed above. The Xenon X and Nano Puff are very similar in size when stowed in their pockets, the Xenon X could compress even smaller, while the Nano Puff is packed in there fairly tightly. While not as low profile as the Nano Puff, we loved how quickly and easily the Xenon X stowed away, allowing for more time climbing and less time stuffing. The Thermoball Hoody and the Cathode Hooded Jacket stuffed away easily.
We found the Outdoor Research Uberlayer very difficult to stuff into it's stowaway pocket. While synthetic insulation has become more compressible over the years, long-term durability is still an issue. The fibers' ability to rebound to their full loft decreases with repeated compression and the more tightly you compact them, the more wear and tear you put on their fine fiber matrices. Always store your jackets in their fully lofted, uncompressed state.
In this category, we assessed the mobility of each test piece, as well as the small details that made each product more comfortable. We found that some jackets moved better with us than others, and some had little features like fleece-lined chin guards or hand pockets that deliver lots of happiness for minimal weight. Let's discuss mobility first; this is an important attribute for a jacket. When you reach overhead for a climbing hold or to reach into the top of your pack, a model that stays put on your torso (without the waist hem being tugged upwards) is appreciated.
We also assessed how easily we could move our arms, as well as the general mobility of the hoods. Ease of use is also an important consideration when we compare jackets. Nice zipper pulls, pockets in just the right places, and convenient hood adjustments are a few of the features that contribute to higher comfort scores. In each product's individual review, we provide a run down of the small details that make us love certain models. Scores awarded for comfort contribute 20% of each model's overall score.
We quickly came to love the comfort of both the Patagonia Nano Air (a perfect 10!) and Outdoor Research Uberlayer. The soft, stretchy fabrics feel great, provide excellent mobility, and wick away sweat. The Nano Air's hood fits and feels great and this product is the only one we tested with two exterior chest pockets; a simple but very useful feature. Both the Arc'teryx Atom LT and the also received high comfort scores. Both these models have comfy, low-bulk cuffs, well-shaped zipper pulls, and great mobility. The Xenon X also scores well for comfort; its light fabrics and lofty insulation just plain feel good. The snug hood, which features large micro fleece chin and neck patches, was our favorite of the bunch.
We especially enjoy having hoods on our insulated jackets, since they provide a cozy warmth upgrade for very little weight. A hood is also impossible to misplace, unlike a hat or scarf. We wore hoods under and over climbing helmets. Our favorite hood designs featured cinch cords that tightened the hood around the head and not the face. A hood can sometimes get in the way if you're planning to wear your layer primarily under a shell that has its own hood. Many of the hooded models we tested are available in a hoodless model.
We've all been caught out when the wind started howling or an unexpected light rain starting falling. Most of the products we tested in this review are designed to be worn primarily as a mid-layer, with a rain jacket or hardshell added over top for foul weather protection. That said, many users frequently employ these products as their outer most layer. We wore all the jackets in this review as outer layers while hiking and running in fall and early winter conditions. We also toted many along on multi-pitch climbs as both warmth and wind protection. We weighted weather resistance as 15% of our overall scores.
Insulated jackets are not usually designed to be waterproof or windproof outer layers. If you're looking for a jacket that combines the warmth of an insulated jacket with the weather protection of a hardshell, be sure to check out our ski jacket for men review.
Models with a continuous or near continuous outer fabric do a better job of stopping the wind. The Xenon X is the most weather resistant of the 60 g/m2 insulated products tested. Its nylon ripstop fabric has a Pertex Quantum coating that works great in light rain and snow, and it is practically windproof. While this model is not seam-taped, the shell design minimizes the number of seams. The Xenon X is the only one of the light models we'd purposefully wear without a shell during a short, light rain. With the exceptions of the Outdoor Research Cathode Hooded Jacket and the Outdoor Research Uberlayer, all the models we tested had a DWR treatment. This causes light rain to bead off the shell and keep the insulation dry. The DWR treatment was particularly impressive on the Nano-Air Hoody, which stayed dry in light rain conditions while being the most breathable model we tested.
The medium and heavy insulated models we tested all earned high weather resistance scores - their bulk does a great job of stopping the wind from penetrating. The heavily insulated Patagonia DAS is also built with a PU-coated shell fabric; overall, the DAS is very water resistant and completely stops the wind. The hybrid construction jackets present an interesting conundrum in rating weather resistance. Take the Best Buy winning Cathode, for example. The torso, shoulders, and top of the sleeves are built with water resistant Pertex Quantum fabric. This resists a light rain well, and stops the wind. But the breathable underarm and side panels let the wind blow right through.
Highly breathable insulated jackets are a relatively new arrival to the market, and are designed to regulate temperature and wick away sweat during high energy activities in cold weather. The introduction of Polartec Alpha and more recently FullRange insulation from Patagonia allows a new approach to breathability. The insulation itself moves moisture better than PrimaLoft, and it promotes better air flow. The Patagonia Nano Air pairs its FullRange insulation up with stretchy, breathable shell fabric and a moisture-wicking lining to create the most breathable model we tested. Not far behind is the Outdoor Research Uberlayer. The warmer Uberlayer uses similar fabrics paired with heavier Polartec Alpha insulation. For high energy activities like backcountry skiing and winter running, these two jackets are game changers. Just add a super light shell like the Rab Windveil or the Patagonia Houdini in case it gets really windy.
The long-standing approach to making a Primaloft or Coreloft product better suited to high levels of exertion is to incorporate low bulk and highly breathable panels under the arms and on the sides of the jacket. The Outdoor Research Cathode and Arc'teryx Atom LT both take this hybrid approach. Wind resistant fabric protects your core while the stretchy side panels dump excess heat. These two hybrids (which both have traditional insulation) earned the next highest breathability scores after the three advanced models above. Unsurprisingly, the medium and heavy models we tested were the least breathable.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but we've done our best to assign a style score to each of these pieces. Puffy jackets aren't just outdoor recreation items these days and some of these products just look better than others for around-town wear. Some of these, the ThermoBall for example, have lots of quilted stitching in the outer fabric, which creates a distinctive look. Most have a shiny, techy looking ripstop nylon shell, but the Atom LT, Nano Air, and Uberlayer have a softer, more matte look and feel. You will find many photos of each product in their individual reviews, including close-ups of their outer fabric, as well as front and back views. Style ratings contribute 5% of overall scores.
We really like a hood on insulated jackets, as it provides a great warmth upgrade, but a floppy hood on your shoulders isn't exactly an out-to-dinner look. We tested a mix of jackets with hoods and without. Some of the hoodless models actually don't come in hoody versions, so if having a hood is important to you, please be sure to check out the "other versions" section of each individual review to see if there is a hooded version. All of our test pieces were size smalls (with a few mediums scattered in) and the Style section of individual reviews is where we comment on the size and fit of each.
Care & Feeding of Insulated Jackets
If your insulated jacket is a workhorse piece, it will get dirty. As a mid-layer, body oils and funk will accumulate over time…or if you use it as an outer layer, it will probably get all kinds of dirty when you're playing hard. Washing and drying these jackets is far easier than caring for down. Always consult the manufacturer's care instructions, but a trip through the washer on cold or warm water with powdered detergent works great. Throw your jacket in the dryer on the lowest heat setting and you're done.
All the products in this review have a DWR treatment of some sort on the outer fabric and you'll want it to continue working over time. Often washing and drying will do a good job restoring a DWR coating that has begun to wet out (accumulating a film of water rather than beading it). Try a short dose of medium heat in the dryer.
Eventually, it will be necessary to reapply a DWR treatment to your jacket to keep it beading water like new. We prefer spray-on products as opposed to the wash-in varieties. We want the outer fabric to resist water well, but we still want the lining to be able to absorb and wick moisture from sweat away towards the outside. Wash your jacket, warm it up in the dryer, and spray on your product of choice. We find "baking on" the new polymers with hot air from a hair dryer increases their lifespan. Nikwax and Granger produce full lines of fabric treatments, including spray-on and wash-in varieties.
With the large assortment of models on the market today, choosing the best jacket can be tough. We rank warmth, weight, and compressibility high on the list of important attributes in this category, yet other features such as weather resistance and breathability may prove to be a top priority depending on your use. We hope that our rigorous testing will help to ease your search for the right jacket. For more information on buying the best jacket in this category for your needs, have a look at our buying advice article.
— Matt Bento
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